The man all but certain to be the next mayor of Rascafría, a small town in the green and mist-hugged mountains an hour north of Madrid, gives few clues about his political leanings as he lists his priorities for the coming months and years.
As well as helping the hospitality and livestock sectors on which the local economy depends, Óscar Robles wants to improve the leisure and culture provision for Rascafría’s ill-served young people and to reopen a social club for its older residents that has been shuttered since before the Covid pandemic.
“This campaign has been very honest, very on the ground and very calm,” says the 59-year-old print business owner. “We haven’t got into ideological arguments with anyone. it’s been all about the people here; the young people, the old people, the livestock farmers. I don’t care what colour you are; if you’re a neighbour, I’m here to help you.”
The only unmistakable evidence of his party affiliation is to be found on the double-headed placards that still loom over Rascafría’s cold, rainy streets and which show his smiling face alongside that of a beaming Rocío Monasterio, Vox’s leader in the Madrid region.
The pair, and their far-right party, have much to smile about in the wake of last month’s municipal and regional polls in Spain and in the run-up to July’s snap general election. Robles’s quiet, hyper-local campaign – waged in stark contrast to the strident, vituperative and sometimes openly xenophobic electoral tone in which Vox has come to specialise – looks set to deliver the party its first mayoralty in the region, if he can secure the agreement of other parties.
Far more importantly, however, Vox is now poised to enter more regional governments and could even form part of the national government if, as expected, the conservative People’s party (PP) falls well short of an absolute majority on 23 July and has to rely on the party’s support to take office. The PP has so far refused to rule out any deals with Vox.
Such a scenario would have been unthinkable even five years ago – as would the fact that Vox is now the third largest party in Spain’s 350-seat congress.
Founded almost a decade ago by a disenchanted faction of the PP who felt the conservatives had become too soft and who wanted to see Spain’s regional governments dissolved and power returned to the centre, the party was dismissed for a long time as a bunch of nostalgic, anachronistic and unelectable cranks.
Stunts such as unfurling a massive Spanish flag on the rock of Gibraltar did little to dispel that impression, nor did the tweets from the party’s then-leader in Andalucía about “psychopathic feminazis” and women who were too ugly to be gang-raped.
But all that started to change six years ago when the failed push for Catalan independence pitched Spain into its worst political and territorial crisis in decades.
Miguel González, an El País journalist who covers Vox and is the author of a book on the party titled Vox Inc: the Business of Spanish Patriotism, says the explosion of long-running tensions between Catalonia’s pro-independence regional government and the Spanish state awakened a long-dormant strain of nationalism.
“I’d say there was an ashamed Spanish nationalism that was ashamed precisely because that nationalism had been used by Franco during the entire dictatorship,” he says.
“That nationalism had pretty much only manifested itself during football matches when Spain was playing. But the whole Catalan issue was very important emotionally as well as politically. There are a lot of people who felt personally hurt over what happened in Catalonia, and that awoke that Spanish nationalism that had been latent.”
Add to that the social, economic and demographic factors in play in Spain and many other European countries – ageing populations, fears about immigration, and digital and equality revolutions that have left many people feeling left behind – and the conditions for Vox were ripe.
As González points out, straight lines can be drawn between the convulsions in Catalonia and the rise of Vox. Perceptions that the PP government of Mariano Rajoy had been too soft and too slow to react to the Catalan independence movement – and that the party had become too corrupt – also played a part.
The Andalucían elections of December 2018, which came six months after Rajoy’s government had been kicked out of office via a Socialist-led no-confidence vote, saw Vox break through and take 12 seats in the regional parliament.
Four months later – in the first of 2019’s two general elections – Vox gained a foothold in the parliament after winning 24 seats. That first election coincided with the trial of 12 Catalan regional government and civic leaders over their role in the push to secede from Spain. The November general election, in which Vox more than doubled its seat count to 52, was fought amid the unrest in Catalonia that met the jailing of nine of the 12 independence leaders.
But the party’s greatest coup to date came in March last year when the PP cut a deal with Vox to govern the north-western region of Castilla y León as a coalition. The pact may have made the PP uneasy – not least because of Vox’s efforts to set an anti-abortion agenda in the region – but it gave Vox the keys to power and whetted its appetite for more.
While Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, is hoping his party will be able to pressure his PP counterpart, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, into more coalition regional governments following last month’s polls, his eye is now firmly on national government.
“Vox’s aim is to get into the Spanish government,” says González. “Abascal wants to be the [equivalent of Italy’s Matteo] Salvini; he wants to be deputy prime minister in a Feijóo government. Vox’s whole strategy is focused on that outcome.”
One of Vox’s greatest achievements has been the normalisation of views that would, until very recently, have jarred in a country that has long prided itself on being tolerant, progressive and immune to nationalism.
“Vox is an ultra-nationalist party – I think that’s the best definition,” says González. “Within Vox, you have sectors that came from the fascist Falange party and ultra-Catholic sectors that are pro-life and absolutely against abortion and gay marriage.”
But on the streets of Rascafría – and in many other villages, towns and cities across Spain – its supporters tend to dwell less on its ideological extremes than on the prospect it offers them of a break from the socialist and PP duopoly that has governed Spain for the past five decades.
For Romualdo and Luis, two Rascafría residents standing outside a cafe on one of the town’s main streets, the recent municipal election had been more about local services and investment than a clash of radically different political visions. “It’s all about the candidate here, not the party,” says Romualdo.
For José Luis García, who has had a house in Rascafría for almost 40 years, much of Vox’s appeal lies in what it is not. “I think this town has been abandoned for the last two or three legislatures,” he says. “There’s nothing for the kids to do here. They’re out on the streets all bloody day. I’m a Vox voter and I’ll vote for them until they give me a reason not to. The country is screwed and they’re the only hope.”
González refuses to be drawn on what will happen on 23 July. But he notes that while all the polls suggest that Feijóo will need Vox to govern, the polls also said the PP would need Vox to govern in Andalucía, where the conservatives ended up winning an absolute majority last year. “I wouldn’t rule out Feijóo’s rise coming at the expense of Vox,” he says. “But how far will that go? What happens if Feijóo gets an absolute majority? Then Vox would become a pretty small, irrelevant party.”
For now, he adds, the only certainty is that European politics as a whole is very fluid and changeable.
“When that [nationalism] wave came in Catalonia, Vox was a little boat, but if it hadn’t existed, it would never have been able to catch that wave,” says Gónzalez. “As long as Vox is around, it may be able to catch that wave, just like [Giorgia] Meloni [prime minister of Italy] caught it, or [Viktor] Orbán [prime minister of Hungary] caught it. These parties can grow a lot when there’s a crisis.”
Sam Jones in Rascafría
Published: 2023-06-11 11:00:49